Herodotus Tells Tales From Egypt’s Hoary Past! Today’s installment: Nitrocris, Queen of Babylon!
Wait, no. That can’t be right. We already covered Nitocris back in Book I, when Herodotus was listing off everything he knew about Babylon.
According to our boy H, though, Nitocris. He says there have been as of his writing three hundred and thirty-one kings of Egypt, of which eighteen were Ethiopian conquerers and one was a woman who just happened to have the same name as the semi-mythical Babylonian queen.
Backtracking for just a second: Menes! The first king of Egypt was Menes, who accomplished such remarkable deeds as inventing the concept of being king of Egypt, founding the city of Memphis, and diverting the course of the Nile. Herodotus credits him with digging a channel that resulted in the Nile’s peculiar bend fourteen miles south of Memphis, and also for digging a lake that may or may not have ever existed (it definitely doesn’t exist nowadays).
For centuries Menes was somebody that historians pointed at and said ‘listen, Herodotus can’t be trusted, he believed in Menes! He may as well have believed in the tooth fairy! There’s no mythical Egypt-founder! It’s nonsense!’ and words to that effect. Then in 1897 and 1904 Egyptologists discovered his tomb, so who’s laughing now?
On the other hand, Herodotus also reports the story of Queen Also Nitocris with a straight face and he’s totally wrong about 331 kings. He’s careful to explain that this Nitocris only has the same name as the Nitrocris he talked about back in Book I. She was the sister of a king, he says; the Egyptians rose up in revolt and killed her brother.
“So we probably should have thought this through,” said the conspirators. “Now we don’t have a king and our dead king didn’t leave any heirs.”
“Oh, all right,” said Nitocris. “I’ll do it. I’ll be king.”
“A woman king? Truly we live in strange times!” But there were no other claimants, so Nitocris became ‘woman king,’ i.e. history’s first ruling queen.
She was, however, not nearly the smiles and sunshine one might expect given that she was just handed the throne. Nitocris had been put in power by a conspiracy of aristocrats, and she didn’t trust them. Thus, her four-part plan.
Step one: arrange for the construction of a big underground complex, a veritable dungeon, on the pretext that it would become a new public building and memorial.
Step two: throw a big gala celebrating the opening of her dungeon, and invite all the aristocrats who had participated in the plot against her brother. Also invite all the aristocrats who would have participated, if they’d been given the chance. Err on the side of inviting too many aristocrats. Pack them in.
Step three: divert the Nile through the dungeon. Cackle insanely as the upper crust of Memphis all drown in agony.
Step four: to assure that no one calls you to account for your crime, commit suicide. Chosen method: seal yourself in a basement room full of hot ashes and die of carbon monoxide poisoning from the incomplete combustion, thus lowering the glass ceiling further.
Pretty crazy, am I right? After Nitocris, Herodotus says, there were no interesting kings until Sesostris aka Ramses II.
NEXT: RAMSES II